My Freshman English Grade ≠ 2022 Writing Proficiency

There was an article on The Conversation website back in March by Elisabeth Gruner discussing how she stopped giving grades on student papers in favor of comments and wished she had done so sooner.

I was reminded of Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where he mentions doing the same thing in his classes at Montana State University in the late 1950s. Pirsig’s students reacted much like Gruner’s did some 70 years later. Basically, they freak out at the prospect of not being given a grade.

I have written about Pirsig’s book before, though it has been about 15 years since my last reference to it. My experiences since then have somewhat supplemented my perspective. In recent years I have been writing on the idea that just because you can measure it, doesn’t mean the resulting data is an accurate depiction of value.

In the same way, a grade doesn’t really help you master content and improve. While an instructor can obviously provide a grade and comments, as Gruner notes, students will flip past all the comments to find the grade and then they are done.

Granted, students always have the option of ignoring comments and choose not to improve their skills. But that is a choice all humans have when faced with critique and not limited to educational settings.

The other issue is that grades and comments are only a measure of your level of mastery at a moment in time.

As I mention in my post from 15 years ago, I wrote a paper based on Pirsig’s book arguing for comments on papers in favor of grades. My professor took me at my word and didn’t give me a grade until after we discussed her comments. (She was obligated by the school to provide a grade, I didn’t feel the need for one.)

Another professor commented on another paper I wrote, observing that the grammatical mistakes were legion, but that I had done a fantastic job of capturing the voice and flavor of the work upon which I based my composition.

There was a grade on that paper. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember the comment. Arguably, my writing skills have improved since then. There have been many factors which have contributed to my higher standard of writing, but it really wasn’t the grades. Memories of my educational experience and how I professors dealt with me are what have endured.

In a similar manner, measures of value that are often applied to the arts like economic impact are meaningless.  How does economic impact inform organizational decision making? How does knowing the economic impact number influence how those in the community conduct their lives?

There is a lot of other data which will help organizations strive to do better or effect change. There are other ways in which people’s lives will be impacted by an arts organization. The value of all this can be examined and observed over the course of years.


Something I wanted to call attention to that is somewhat unrelated to my point about the relevance of grades and certain metrics used to measure organizational value. I feel this is important to note for people who want to read Pirsig, or my early posts on his book, and take some lessons from his experience with grading.

In Pirsig’s book, when he talks about his experience eliminating grading in the classroom, he mentions that the A & B students’ work improved, C students either improved a bit or stayed average, and D & F students basically kept sinking.  Basically, the idea was that the students’ natural talent and work ethic were a constant regardless of whether they were graded.

Gruner has different perspective which I think is a reflection of the differences between who got to attend university in 1958 and 2020s.

My studies confirmed my sense that sometimes what I was really grading was a student’s background. Students with educational privilege came into my classroom already prepared to write A or B papers, while others often had not had the instruction that would enable them to do so. The 14 weeks they spent in my class could not make up for the years of educational privilege their peers had enjoyed.

While I know that background influences the degree to which people are prepared for an educational experience, until I read that paragraph, my recollection of Pirsig’s observations about grading dominated my perspective.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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